He’s gone from a perennial contender to an also-ran, and not just any old also-ran, but one of those former Premiership clubs languishing in deep financial trouble that have as good a chance of being relegated from Division One as promoted next season. This is not the direction Ireland’s brightest young prospects are supposed to go in. After all, wasn’t Barrett — cue the drumroll and unfortunate historical comparison here — supposed to be the next Liam Brady?
Notwithstanding him being a striker rather than a midfielder, the prevailing wisdom had it that the 21-year-old was at least expected to make something of a similar impact as the man who recruited him to North London. Like a dozen others before him, Barrett wasn’t quite up to that task. When an injury-hit Arsene Wenger packed midfield rather than gamble on playing the Dubliner up front in a crucial clash with Manchester United two years ago, we feared he was destined to be the next Irish victim of the curse of the big club. Far too many gifted teenagers have lost crucial momentum wasting away at places where managers buy big and the queue for first-team berths gets longer each passing season.
The last Irish youngster to make the journey from youths to first-team regular (and he wasn’t even a guaranteed starter) at Highbury was Niall Quinn back in the 1980s. Steve Staunton enjoys a similar status for breaking through at the tail end of Liverpool’s hegemony, and before John O’Shea became the exception that proves the rule at Old Trafford, a certain Johnny Giles was the last Irish boy to make the jump from young apprentice to starter there. Immensely flattering as it must be for a parent to answer the door to somebody wearing the crest of any of those clubs on their tie, how could they know the statistics of failure and then allow a talented son move to any of those venues?
A serious downside to O’Shea’s emergence as the best ball-playing Irish defender since Paul McGrath is that representatives of the bigger outfits will dine out on it for years to come. They will enter living rooms around Ireland and tell gullible mothers and fathers that their boy wonder can make it at Old Trafford-Anfield-Highbury just like Waterford’s finest did. Throw in the fact the initial money is likely to be better than what’s on offer farther down the food chain, add some persuasive argument about the football education at the bigger institutions being superior, and parents will be wowed enough to let their pride and joy leave for a club where he has little or no chance of making it.
That it would be better by far if the youngster was off to somewhere utterly dependent on the development of its own players is pretty obvious to anybody with a knowledge of the game’s recent history. Five years ago, Robbie Keane was given his debut by Wolves in the first game of the campaign because he had a sensational pre-season, and since Steve Bull was on his last legs, they figured he might be able to help one of their all-time legends milk another year out of his ailing body. Once he scored twice that Saturday afternoon, they could ill afford to ever leave him out again. Bereft of other options, they had to let him grow in the first team rather than outside it and he was much the better for the chance to do so.
Whatever persuaded Keane to choose Wolves over a slew of other suitors, it paid off handsomely. There is no question he wouldn’t have had the chance to blossom as quickly at Anfield or Highbury or Old Trafford. We know this because so many of his equally talented contemporaries have had their growth stinted at those very clubs. It’s ironic that Barrett has finally signed for Coventry, given that that’s where Richie Partridge, another Dublin wunderkind, spent last season on loan from Liverpool. Partridge turns 23 next September, and with a year left to run on his Anfield contract, the winger is running out of time to fulfill his earlier promise.
His plight is in marked contrast to those great success stories who got their start off-Broadway, where the opportunities to play were more plentiful and their mistakes were made away from the spotlight. Think of Denis Irwin’s gradual progression at a down-on-its-luck Leeds United and Oldham Athletic all those years ago or Brian Clough giving Roy Keane his first jersey at Anfield in 1990. Nottingham Forest were a better club then than they are now but they were also standard bearers for giving youth its head. In more recent times, Blackburn allowed Damien Duff ride out the patchiness of form that afflicts all wingers in a way that would have been beyond a club where nothing but the Premiership title or a Champions’ League spot represents a good season.
“I’d be questioning clubs’ judgment on some of the fellas that they take,” Brian Kerr said. “There’s a couple of very big clubs who have Irish lads and I’d be looking at them, thinking they have no chance. I’d watch a game and I’d say to myself: ‘This boy has no chance of being a first-team player at this club unless my own judgment is way wrong.’ That saddens me because it’s not a nice environment to be in. In some cases, I think it’s actually the parents being on an ego trip. The parents want to be able to go into the pub and say that their son is away at an English club.”
Five years have passed since Kerr made that comment. Sounds as relevant as ever.